Sermon from October 31: “I am going fishing.”
“I am going fishing”
Reformation Day; October 31, 2021
When things are upset and you’re feeling stressed-out, it’s very comforting to retreat to the familiar. During the last year and a half, have you turned to your favorite, familiar music? Have you taken comfort in familiar food or familiar reading? Do you return to a familiar activity? I think that’s part of what’s behind Peter’s declaration, “I’m going fishing.” Remember that was his profession before he became an Apostle: he, his brother Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee were all in the fishing business. Maybe he needed money so he decided to go to work. But I think it more likely that all this mess of Jesus’ trial and Crucifixion, then his appearances after his Resurrection, had Peter stretched to the limit emotionally and so he just wanted to do something familiar.
It didn’t work out, at first. Given that he seemed to have had a sizeable household, he was likely pretty good at his job. So it’s sad that they worked all night and didn’t catch a thing. There are times like that, aren’t there? Those of you who are teachers: you have days when you believe that not a one of your students got a single thing you said. Accountants and financial planners: days when none of your clients listens to your advice. Health care workers: days when nothing you try seems to work. There are those days.
So Peter and his companions are about to hang it up when this shadowy figure on the shore tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. It’s a stupid suggestion, but what do they have to lose? So they try it, and haul in 153 large fish. I’m intrigued that someone counted them, and even though lots of folks agree the number is probably meaningful, there’s no agreement on what it means. It’s possible someone did count them, in order to demonstrate that nobody was exaggerating. And it’s possible the number also signifies the redemption of the entire world.
Once again, though, we bump up against the familiar. When they hauled into the boat the huge catch of fish, right away the Beloved Disciple said, “It is the Lord!” He recognized the Lord Jesus because he had seen him do this before: Peter and his partners had worked all night, Jesus told them to let down their nets again, they did and they took in a huge catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11). Jesus did something familiar and he recognized him.
That it was Jesus was confirmed to everyone when they got ashore and he invited them to eat. “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus said. How many times had Jesus offered food, food for the body and food for the soul? This one hits me personally. Some of you know C. S. Lewis’ series of children’s books “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Aslan the Lion is, of course, a Christ-figure in the story. But that didn’t really hit me until I read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Those of you who know the series will be surprised: Aslan is killed and raised from the dead in the first book, but that didn’t hit me. He is absent a long time and then returns in the second book. That didn’t hit me. But in Book 3, when the good ship The Dawn Treader reaches the eastern edge of the ocean, they are met by a lamb on the seashore, who is roasting fish and bread, and says, “Come and have breakfast.” That’s when it whacked me upside the head. I know that I can be dense, but this familiar invitation made clear to me that it was the Lord.
When two disciples were walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem, the resurrected Jesus joined them on the road, but they didn’t recognize him. They talked about the Scriptures, about the work of Jesus, about the hopes for Messiah, but they didn’t recognize Jesus. That is, they didn’t until they sat down at the table, where Jesus took bread, blessed, and broke it. Then, Luke tells us, their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Jesus did that familiar thing: blessing and breaking bread, and they knew him (Luke 24:13-31).
When you are doing the familiar thing that may or may not have anything to do with your religion, Jesus may surprisingly show up. You may recognize him because he causes something to happen that he has done before; you may recognize him because he does something you have seen him do before. Sadly, you may not recognize him at all, but he may show up just the same. Would the others have recognized Jesus if the Beloved Disciple had not called out, “It is the Lord”? I think so; they could hardly have mistaken him for anyone else when they heard his invitation, “Come and have breakfast.”
This leads me to a couple of thoughts to share with you. One is that we don’t always have to be doing something explicitly religious for Jesus to show up. Yes, today is Reformation Day, and that’s real important. But I know what’s really on everyone’s mind: Halloween. I’m glad some of you are in costume today; I have one for the Trunk-or-Treat after worship. In our crazy days Halloween can be a moment of familiar fun; enjoy it. Jesus can show up even during play.
When I was in Richmond, Virginia some years ago I worshiped at the grand old Presbyterian Church that is associated with the Seminary there. They had removed the front few pews on one side and created a children’s play area: children could quietly play on the floor while a parent sat nearby. Some years ago I suggested we try something like that here and was shouted down; we used to have someone who would oppose any idea if it came from me. Well, our Director of Christian Education Anne would like to try it and I think it’s worth a try. I don’t know if it will work, but you can’t know if you don’t try it. Will Jesus show up for the children while they are quietly at play? One thing I have learned: children pay attention to a lot more than we think they do. I expect Jesus will show up.
Another thought has to do with ritual; that is, the things we do repeatedly and familiarly. Most of us have a ritual way to get clean and dressed in the morning. We have family rituals around meals and holidays. There are rituals associated with football and soccer and other sporting events. And we have our rituals in Christian worship: words we say and activities we do in a certain order. But ritual does not need to be routine. When you say familiar words or sing a familiar tune or hear a familiar reading, Jesus may show up. He may glance at you out of the page, wink at you during a hymn, put a comforting hand on your shoulder while we say the Lord’s Prayer. We pretty much always expect him to show up in the breaking of the bread and I think he does, even if we do not recognize him.
As you go about your week, doing what is familiar, Jesus may show up at any time. Who knows? He may even invite you to breakfast.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 If you would like to read a good account of how that may be, look at https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/do-the-153-fish-in-john-21-count-for-anything/